Insights
7 min Read
April 1, 2009

Write Visually. Making your prose pretty will do more for readability than style.

The work your nonprofit does is changing the world. So if you write about it, people will read it, right?

Alas, not necessarily. These days, we writers need to trick even our most faithful audiences into reading our precious, precious words.

“Writing visually” is a good first step toward this reader trickery.

Designers can help you. You can help designers.

A good designer can make your prose visually pleasing and easy to read. But you can get a good start yourself and help guide a designer into making the most important parts of what you write also the most readable.

Already in this document, I’ve used a title, several short paragraphs, and a heading. If you’re skimming this article, I’ve written it in a way to guide your eyes through the biggest ideas.

It starts on the page.

Most of us use Microsoft Word® for our word processing needs. As much as possible I try to avoid any of the auto-formatting functions in Word®. The reasons are too numerous to get into in this little article, but an important one is that auto-formatting can drive designers crazy. Designers just want good clean words. And creating text boxes or using other desktop publishing functions is a surefire way to find yourself removed from your designer’s holiday card list. All those things do is create more work for the designer, and whether you’re paying a freelancer, working with an agency, or handing it over to a staff designer, it’s ultimately a waste of resources. And who can afford to waste resources in this economy? That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about how the copy will look as you write. I like to use boldface type for headings (as demonstrated in this essay). I’ll indicate in brackets, as a note to our design team, if I think something is worthy of a callout. (A callout is a blurb set apart visually from the main text.) I’ll occasionally throw in some italics for sub-headings or other ideas important to stress when boldface isn’t appropriate. I rarely use the underlining function anymore, especially since it’ll only be confusing if what I’m writing will be published online (links to other sites are, after all, usually underlined). I also double-space between paragraphs. And I tend to create a lot of new paragraphs. Screenwriters call it “dropping a line of white.” Sometimes it’s called white space. A designer might refer to it as negative space. Whatever the name, those hard returns help keep text easy on the eyes. Like Penelope Cruz. Or Jude Law. Except they’re words instead of freakish good looks. Perhaps I use too many hard returns for most grammarians’ tastes, but I’d rather have my audience read what I write than be technically correct. If you happen to know my 7th grade grammar teacher Miss Schaefer, please don’t rat me out. She was tough.

And, suffering cats, that got to be a long paragraph. Did you read the whole thing? Or did you skip ahead to this?

For the purposes of an online essay such as this one, I’d probably take my own advice about the use of paragraphs and of double-spacing between them. I’d write a few sub-headings, also. So let’s see how that long paragraph looks when I write visually right here in my Microsoft Word® document:

Auto-formatting destroys relationships.

Most of us use Microsoft Word® for our word processing needs. As much as possible I try to avoid any of the auto-formatting functions in Word®. The reasons are too numerous to get into in this little article, but an important one is that auto-formatting can drive designers crazy.

Designers just want good clean words. And creating text boxes or using other desktop publishing functions is a surefire way to find yourself removed from your designer’s holiday card list. All those things do is create more work for the designer, and whether you’re paying a freelancer, working with an agency, or handing it over to a staff designer, it’s ultimately a waste of resources. And who can afford to waste resources in this economy?

Looks are important.

Looky here! It’s a call out!

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about how the copy will look as you write. I like to use boldface type for headings (as demonstrated in this essay). I’ll indicate in brackets, as a note to our design team, if I think something is worthy of a callout. (A callout is a blurb set apart visually from the main text.)

I’ll occasionally throw in some italics for sub-headings or other ideas important to stress when boldface isn’t appropriate. I rarely use the underlining function anymore, especially since it’ll only be confusing if what I’m writing will be published online (links to other sites are, after all, usually underlined).

Your words can be freakishly handsome.

I also double-space between paragraphs. And I tend to create a lot of new paragraphs. Screenwriters call it “dropping a line of white.” Sometimes it’s called white space. A designer might refer to it as negative space. Whatever the name, those hard returns help keep text easy on the eyes. Like Penelope Cruz. Or Jude Law. Except they’re words instead of freakish good looks.

Nose down! Hands behind your back!

Perhaps I use too many hard returns for most grammarians’ tastes, but I’d rather have my audience read what I write than be technically correct. If you happen to know my 7th grade grammar teacher Miss Schaefer, please don’t rat me out. She was tough.

A lot easier to read, isn’t it? It’s also a lot easier to pick up the important ideas if you only skim it. The multiple paragraph approach takes up a lot more space. But that’s a good thing, too. It will help you keep your word count down.

And the fewer words you write, the more likely it is your audience will read it.

For better or worse, technology affects how we read.

Writing visually is especially important when developing copy for your website. Give your readers’ eyes a break. A giant block of text on a monitor will frustrate your readers, especially since people read a lot slower on screen than in print.

I’ve even noticed that as I’ve gone increasingly green with my reading habits — online newspapers, magazines, and even novels, stories, and scripts — how I read an actual book has changed. I now find myself jarred by the long paragraphs found in novels. When I see those enormous blocks of text with no break, my mind struggles to take it all in. (Ah, the perils of copywriting.)

But if I accept that my personal experience isn’t isolated, I think that all of this online reading we do now is changing how we respond to print media. So the “writing visually” practice will benefit you in your brochures, annual reports, and other text-heavy printed materials you may produce during any given year.

Step it down, baby.
To write visually, you should think hierarchically about what you’re writing. Remember the outlines your English teacher made you do in high school? If you were anything like me, you’d write the paper first, and then create an outline to match.

But thinking of your prose as an outline can help you write visually. Here’s a typical breakdown:

Big Idea (a.k.a. headline)
A statement here that summarizes the Big Idea could well be the only sentence other than the headline that people read — knock socks off with it.

    • The most important backup support statement goes first.
    • Think of these backup points as an opportunity to say more, but continue to keep it brief.
    • Limit your bulleted list as much as you can. Don’t overwhelm with bullets.

If what you’re writing seems too formal or is otherwise inappropriate for bullet points, create new paragraphs liberally instead, as I’ve done throughout.

Also, using the sheer number of headings that I’ve used throughout this essay won’t always be appropriate for what you’re writing. When you can’t break up the prose with headings and sub-headings, etc., it’s even more important to rely on frequent new paragraphs to help you reach your readers.

It’s the same monitor, after all.

Thinking of your prose as an outline will especially help you when developing copy for your website. After all, if you’re using a word processing program on a computer, you’re looking at a monitor. If it looks good on the screen in front of you, it’ll get you that much closer to making it readable on your website.

Danger, Will Robinson!

There can be too much of a good thing, of course, particularly if you over-bold, over-italicize, and over-underline (“over-underline”?). If you feature more than one callout on a page, you risk over-emphasizing and trivializing instead.

Don’t forget to back up your beauty.

Making your words pretty on the page (or screen) can seduce people into reading about your organization. So once you’ve gotten their eyes, make sure your words are substantive enough to capture their hearts, too. Speak to them clearly and concisely, without condescension or cliché, and tell them all why your work changes the world.

When beauty comes with smarts, my nonprofit friends, the result is irresistible.

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